Department: Officer Down
Close Range Armed Encounters
By Brian McKenna
Extreme close-quarters armed attacks can lead to intuitive reactions.
Opening commentary by author:
As unpleasant as it may be to critique the actions of fellow officers who have been injured or killed in the line of duty, it is even more distasteful to see their blood shed in vain, to deny others the lessons we can learn from their sacrifices. The purpose of this column is not to criticize, but to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of those who have faced lethal violence firsthand. With this in mind, this column is dedicated to the officers whose stories are told here, and to all our fellow officers who have been killed and injured in unselfish service to their communities.
Description of Incident
Joseph and Maria Khoury were living the American dream. Having immigrated to this country as a young couple, they had started a small business and then worked hard to build it into a source of great pride. The business, a jewelry store, was located in a mall in a nice part of town, and provided them with a good income, a comfortable home, and many of the things only the wealthy could afford in their home country. Life was good for them and their 4-year-old daughter, Marisa.
But the three people who had just walked through the front door were determined to take away, by force, a big part of all they had worked so hard to earn. The first of the three was 27-year-old Eduardo Garcia. Well groomed and neatly dressed in casual clothing, Garcia didn’t look the part, but he was an escaped con who had been serving time for a robbery conviction. He was a career criminal with nothing to lose, a gun in one pocket, a spare magazine in another, and flex cuffs slipped under the belt of his neat grey pants. With Garcia were his half-sister, Carlotta Ramos, and one of his former cell mates, a fellow career criminal named Carlos Hernandez. Garcia had joined up with the other two after his escape from prison, and the three of them had been making ends meet by holding up retail stores in the area, including one in which they had wounded a store clerk.
Although the Khourys had no way of knowing any of this, they sensed something was wrong almost as soon as Garcia and the others walked through the door. It wasn’t that they had done anything obvious to raise their suspicions, but Maria and Joseph just didn’t like what they saw. Even after Hernandez and Ramos walked out and left Garcia alone inside the store, the feeling only grew. Unlike most of their patrons, Garcia wandered about and asked a few questions about various unrelated items of jewelry, which just didn’t seem right. But what bothered the Khourys the most was the fact that Marisa, who had come to work with them today, had somehow wandered into the customer service area with the man. Maria knew it was time to call the police. As quickly as she could make the move without alerting Garcia to her actions, she tripped the holdup alarm and waited.
The phone rang a few seconds later, and she answered. It was the police dispatcher inquiring about why the alarm had been activated. No, there had been no holdup, Maria explained in a whisper, there was just a man inside the store who was making her very nervous. The dispatcher told her the police would be arriving soon to check things out, and asked her to meet them outside.
Maria was very uncomfortable about the situation. How could she leave little Marisa behind while she went outside to meet the officers? But there was no way she could take Marisa with her without making the man suspicious. The only way to get the help she needed without making things worse was to follow the dispatcher’s directions and go outside. Reluctantly, she left Marisa behind and, with what she hoped was a nonchalant air in her step, slipped through the front door into the cool winter afternoon.
Maria’s concerns were soon diminished to some extent by the sight of two officers—one in plainclothes and the other in uniform—pulling up nearby, followed very shortly by a second uniformed officer. The officer in plainclothes was Detective Kevin Bertalotto, a 41-year-old Robbery/Homicide detective who had been with the department for about 14 years and in police work since he was 19. He had been on his way to lunch, not more than a half mile from the jewelry store, when he overheard the alarm call and subsequent cancellation advising that the call was being reclassified to a suspicious person. He was close and lunch could wait awhile, so he had decided to assist.
The first patrol officer was Eric Yates, a 26-year-old, two-year veteran of the department, and the second was Officer Sean Evans, age 32. Evans had been with the department for about six years, and was currently assigned to one of the city’s high schools as a school resource officer. Like Bertalotto, neither Yates nor Evans had been given the call but had decided to respond because they were close by.
The officers weren’t particularly concerned as they met Mrs. Khoury. The alarm had been cancelled, and it didn’t look like anything serious was going on. Still, they had to be sure.
“Is everything OK in there, ma’am?” Bertalotto asked.
The woman seemed a bit tense as she answered, “I don’t know. There’s a man in there who is making me nervous.”
Bertalotto pressed for more information, “What’s he doing? Does he have any weapons?”
“No, no,” Mrs. Khoury replied, “He just doesn’t seem to belong there. He’s been standing around asking questions, and I don’t like it.”
“Has he made any demands or threats of any kind?” Bertalotto asked.
“No, but he makes me nervous,” she answered, “and my little girl’s in there with him.”
That complicates things, Bertalotto thought. “Where is she?” he asked.
“In the customer area with that man.”
“Is anyone else with him?”
“No. There were two other people with him at first, but they left. Now it’s just my daughter and my husband, Joseph. My daughter’s out front and Joseph is on the phone in the back.”
Not overly concerned but wanting to play it safe just in case, the officers quickly came up with a plan.
“I’ll go in first,” Bertalotto said, “why don’t you two stay outside, and then count to five and follow me in?”
Evans and Yates gave their approval and, after telling Maria to stay outside, the three officers headed for the jewelry store. Since
windows spanned the front of the store, making it unwise to get any closer, they stopped just outside the store next door. Evans and Yates stayed there, and tried to watch the jewelry store without giving themselves away while Bertalotto walked up to the front door.
Garcia was visible through the windows and it didn’t look like he was holding a gun or causing any trouble. Bertalotto could also see Joseph and Marisa. Joseph was still on the phone behind the counter and Marisa was still inside the customer area. The little girl was standing near the back of the room while Garcia stood closer to the front, not far from the door. Still feeling no particular concern, Bertalotto opened the door and stepped over the threshold.
It was almost as if he had stepped into another world. His feeling of calm was suddenly stripped away and replaced with a deep sense of pending trouble. Something just didn’t seem right, but he was already inside the store and past the point of no return. He moved toward Marisa as Garcia turned to look at him. Giving the man a friendly nod, and receiving one back, he kept moving. Joseph, still on the phone, glanced over at him and said, “Be with you in a minute.”
Bertalotto was now standing between Garcia and Marisa, a step closer to his objective. Casually, he turned to get another look at the man whose presence had brought him here, and saw something he didn’t like at all. Garcia was coming at him, his hands shoved deep inside his pants pockets. There was no overt display of aggression, but Garcia was getting too close and there was no telling what he had in his pockets. Raising his hands into an instinctive combat position, Bertalotto sharply snapped, “I’m with the police department.”
Garcia’s eyes widened in alarm and he took a step backward, those hands still shoved dangerously deep into his pockets. Years of training and street experience took over. Without conscious thought, Bertalotto went on the offensive. Although he was left handed, he knew that most people are right handed and went for that hand first. He grabbed Garcia’s right wrist, but had barely gotten hold of it when a sudden movement from Garcia’s left hand told him he had made the wrong choice! The hand flashed into view, and clamped inside it was the dark form of a Glock 17. Bertalotto reacted instantly. He let go of Garcia’s right hand and grabbed his left instead, making the switch quickly enough to push the gun’s muzzle off course before Garcia could take a shot. It was a move that probably saved his life, but he was still in grave danger. He held on tightly to Garcia’s lower left wrist as the man twisted to his left and pulled the gun back in an effort to break it free for a clear shot.
Bertalotto held on. He reached out to grab Garcia’s gun hand with his right, but then the gun went off! Two shots in rapid succession slammed into the inside of his right forearm, shattering the ulna and pushing shards of bone out the other side as they tore through. The damaged arm fell away, but Bertalotto held on with his left and tried to push the gun down and to his right.
The 9mm discharged again, this time striking Bertalotto in the stomach just left of his navel, and exiting his left buttock. But he still held on and pushed down hard on the gun, forcing it downward. Again, the Glock boomed. Now bent over at the waist from the bullet to his stomach, Bertalotto felt the muzzle blast slap him hard in the face as his legs collapsed under him and he fell uncontrollably to the floor. His persistence in pushing the Glock down had prevented anything more than the percussion of the blast from hitting him anywhere above the legs, but he had taken a round in his lower left leg. The bullet had crashed into the front of his shin at a downward angle, snapping the bone in two and exiting out the back of the calf. He was going down hard but held on, unknowingly dragging his assailant down with him. Suddenly, his whole body ached from head to foot and—for the first time—he fully realized he had been hit. But he had no idea where or how many times.
Before Bertalotto was even aware he had pulled Garcia down with him, the man was back on his feet and standing over him. Twice more the Glock roared, this time from up above and behind, sending its deadly missiles down into the prone detective’s vulnerable back! But Officer Evans came through the door right then, distracting Garcia and making his bullets go wide of any vital organs. Still, the first round hit with devastating force, making Bertalotto feel like he had been nailed to the cold floor. The bullet hit just under Bertalotto’s right shoulder blade, mercifully at an outward angle so it missed any internal organs, and exited at the arm pit. The second round was farther off mark but didn’t miss its target entirely. After entering Bertalotto’s right arm near the shoulder, it traveled down the length of the arm and exited near the elbow.
Garcia now had other things to worry about. Evans had entered the room and was moving toward the cover of a display case to his right, firing as he went. Right behind him was Yates, also blazing away with his department-issue Sig 228. Garcia turned on Evans first and, with an unfortunate turn of bad luck, managed to hit the moving officer with a round that put him down immediately. The bullet passed just below the side panel of Evans’ vest, slicing through his intestines and lacerating his femoral artery before crashing into his pelvis. With his hip now broken and nerve damage to one leg, Evans crashed to the floor. But he wasn’t out of the fight! He rolled under the display case, where he continued to fire from the floor. Then his gun jammed. He cleared it, raised it again, and kept shooting in a determined effort to stop the gunman before he could do any more damage….
Meanwhile, Garcia turned on Yates. Under heavy fire, Yates backed up toward the doorway he just entered, firing his own 9mm as he moved and hitting his target with at least six rounds. Garcia kept shooting as he took hits in his right wrist, one ankle, a thigh, his buttocks and his side. Although no vital organs were hit, Yates’ gunfire soon put a stop to the fight, at least for the time being. Yates had just reached the door when he saw Garcia stop shooting and drop to the floor. The pause gave Yates time to take cover behind the door frame and reload.
Then came more shots! Without hesitation, Yates headed back inside, but no further help was needed. Things had changed while he was reloading. Garcia had started to move again, prompting Evans to shout a warning to Bertalotto. Bertalotto—his Sig now in his left hand although he didn’t remember drawing it—looked over to see Garcia lifting the Glock into firing position again. With the sharpest clarity of thought and total focus on the need to stop this new threat, he did just what he was trained to do. As soon as his front sight was centered on Garcia’s head, he fired three quick shots. Two of the three found their mark, one striking the gunman just above an eyebrow and the other hitting him just below one eye. Garcia would never be a threat to anyone again.
Somehow, Joseph Khoury had managed to pull his frightened daughter out of the battle zone during a brief pause in the action. She was unscathed, and now safely in her father’s arms.
Although the bullet to Bertalotto’s stomach had torn through a small portion of his intestines and caused a minor fracture to his pelvis, the wound was much less serious than it might have been and he suffered no serious long-term effects from it. Unfortunately, his other wounds ended his police career. Although not severely disabling, they had caused some permanent physical limitations that forced him to leave the department the following year. He now serves as an investigator in his county prosecutor’s office.
Officer Evans also survived his wounds but, like Bertalotto, had to leave the department because of career-ending physical limitations. He now works as a private investigator.
Officer Yates remained with the department, and has since been promoted to sergeant.
Subsequent investigation revealed that Hernandez and Ramos, who had apparently gotten cold feet while still inside the jewelry store, were waiting outside in the parking lot during the shooting. Preferring not to risk a shootout with the officers, they had declined to get involved and quickly left the area instead. They were apprehended a short time later, and subsequently tried and convicted for several of the other robberies they had perpetrated, but never charged with their part in the events leading to Garcia’s death.1
Discussion & Analysis
Detective Bertalotto’s quick response to Garcia’s attack probably saved his life. It was an intuitive action accelerated by a high level of awareness, not the product of training. Like most officers, he had received no training in extreme close quarters combat, and it nearly cost him his life. That fact cries for a change in the way officers are trained. The following analysis will address this point in greater detail, as well as a number of other key lessons from this incident—lessons that can save lives. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow officers to learn as much as we can from these lessons. Before you read the analysis, however, review the following discussion questions and work through your own answers.